The Safety Memo A Case in Study
The case this report attempts to critically analyze is adapted from “The Safety
Memo”, page 72 in the book “Cases in Management and Organizational
Volume 2”. Throughout the report our primary focus is elucidating the facts,
making inferences and clearly identifying the existing problem. We have used
some theories of organizational behavior to propose solutions for the problem.
We analyze the various solutions from a cost-benefit perspective in order to
achieve an optimal solution. We conclude by stating some of the important
lessons learnt from this case.
The Facts Underlying the Case
The main character outlined in “The Safety Memo” case is Gordon Baldwin.
Gordon worked for 10 years for Pacific Bell, a highly structured and unionized
phone company. He resigned from his job and tried out his luck in the jewelry
business. But he realized he needed a stable, salaried job to support his family.
Trying to rejoin his previous employer, he was disappointed to find out it was not
hiring at that time. So he took up a job with at the Cable Company as a cable TV
Though his job was similar to his previous one, the environment was a lot
different. In sharp contrast to Pacific Bell, the Cable Company was fast-paced,
entrepreneurial and non-unionized. Being the 12th largest in the nation and
having offices country-wide, the company focused on building good customer
After a two week ‘ride-along experience’ with a seasoned employee, he never
received formal safety-skills training. This was unlike the phone company, which
offered extensive employee safety programs. Using his previous training in the
field, he was quick to observe the life threatening risks that his fellow employees
were exposed to at the job. He reported his observations to his boss, Ron, and
provided viable recommendations to fix these problems.
Meanwhile, the senior management was becoming increasingly aware of the
need to establish a loss control program. The risk management department of
the parent company criticized the Cable Company for having an OSHA rate of
23%. This meant that approximately one in four employees sustained serious
and costly injuries on the job. Walsh, the CEO was pressured to implement a
safety program to reduce the losses accruing from workplace injuries. He turned
to Gil to look into the problem, because of his vast operational knowledge as the
Executive Vice President of Engineering.
There were other people in the organization who were in the loss control
One of them was Joan, VP of the Southern California region, elected as the
region’s sponsor for the safety committee. Terry, a member of her staff was
enlisted to head this committee. Gordon, with his concern for safety, became a
volunteer, and was subsequently appointed System safety coordinator by Terry
upon Ron’s (Gordon’s boss) approval. Gordon now had a dual role. Sixty percent
of his time was spent as a CATV technician while loss control activities took up
the remainder of his time. After numerous recommendations being put forward by
Gordon, no substantial improvements took place. Despite receiving positive
reviews for his work from various managers, Bob (Ron’s manager) was reluctant
to implement Gordon’s ideas. Gordon was disillusioned with the company. He felt
he was not being taken seriously as he was just a technician. His ideas were not
being adopted due to budgetary constraints and a generic resistance to new
procedures that plagues most organizations. Gordon’ became frustrated since he
thought his recommendations were important and suitable to the company’s
safety policy. So he decided to write a memo, which he aptly titled ‘The Safety
In response to the memo, Gordon was asked to see Bob, the Gen. Manager. He
was instructed to meet Gil to clarify some misleading statements in the memo he
had written. Having heard stories about Gil’s authoritarian behavior and
reputation of being uncompassionate, Gordon was scared of losing his job.
Gordon was initially received calmly by Gil in his office. Soon the calmness was
replaced by Gil’s loud and angry voice. He accused Gordon of writing false
information in the memo. When Gordon tried to explain his case, Gil angrily said
that the memo was based on inaccurate and inconsistent information. Amidst
Gordon’s confusion, Gil questioned Gordon’s authority to teach someone as
experienced and well versed in the organization as himself. His voice was loud
enough to frighten Gordon, who was unable to even utter complete sentences.
He was reminded of the Biblical characters, David and Goliath. At that moment,
Gordon felt he was at the mercy of Goliath, both literally and symbolically. After
being accused of manufacturing lies without thinking of the consequences to the
company, Gil asked Gordon if the meeting had proved beneficial. Needless to
say, Gordon was perplexed, shattered, and concerned about losing his job. The
impact of Gil’s outburst was so bad that the thought of being asked to leave the
company made him feel better momentarily. Gordon spent the next few days
trying to analyze what transpired during their meeting.
Inferences we can make
Carefully analyzing the facts, we are able to make a number of important
inferences about Gordon, Gil and the Cable Company itself.
Gordon’s personality is brought out by some of his actions. He liked working as a
technician. It is also evident that he seemed to ‘fit in’ well with the organizational
culture prevalent at Pacific Bell because that was the place where he decided to
first look for a job after his stint as a jeweler. The difference he found between his
new company and Pacific Bell unsettled him. He was an involved worker, and
wanted to contribute in an effective manner to the company. He believed that
feedback, a form of upward communication was quite essential.
Gordon must also be credited for taking the initiative to make suggestions to Ron
in the beginning, even though he was just a new employee. This demonstrated
his commitment to a safe working environment as well as a genuine
consideration for his co-workers. When he became the System safety
coordinator, he proved he was a diligent worker by enumerating the problems
and recommending appropriate solutions. When he saw that the safety program
existed only on paper, he felt his opinion did not make a difference because he
was just a low level employee.
It is clear that the company was a growth oriented company, which prided itself
on being productive and profitable. The bottom line was the balance sheet. It
seems that other issues were not important until they ate into profits or led to
The absence of any definitive action proved the company’s laxity towards
employee security. In other words it was the typical entrepreneurial firm for which
the adage -‘The ends justify the means’ worked well. And the ends were clearly
spelt out – becoming the premiere broadband telecommunications provider.
A very important character in this case is Gil, VP of Engineering. We can infer
that he was a dictatorial manager, very dedicated to his goals. He was well
regarded as he was usually successful in the endeavors he undertook. He had a
reputation for being direct, devoid of compassion and absolutely ruthless. Gil was
known to have performed the difficult job of eliminating forty percent of the
workforce in the company’s new plant in Arizona. Emotions and feelings had no
place for him in business. The priority was just getting the job done.
The personality traits of Gil and Gordon as well as the organizational set up of
the Cable Company were the basis for the problem that developed.
What is the problem?
There are a number of factors that contributed to this unfortunate situation.
It is evident that there existed a vast difference between the organizational
cultures present in both the organizations. Organizational culture refers to a
system of shared meaning held by its members. Since Gordon had spent 10 long
years at Pacific Bell, it is natural to expect that he valued its organization culture.
The Cable Company did not provide the kind of opportunities that Pacific Bell did
for his personal development. He had a different set of values from the senior
management, particularly Gil. This was an important problem.
When conflict resulted between Gil and Gordon, Gil chose a conflict handling
behavior that worsened the situation. Being a powerful man, he used the strategy
of Competition to deal with the situation. He wanted to promote his own interest,
which was to very emphatically reaffirm his position in the company.
Unfortunately, he was not bothered about the impact of this on Gordon, who was
totally dominated by him. The problem here seems to be Gil’s management style.
Even though he is considered as efficient and determined, his style of functioning
has serious repercussions on the morale and motivation of his subordinates.
Another problem is related to the structure of the company. Though we do not
know much about the entire organization, we have made a diagram depicting the
various individuals involved with the loss control process.
PEOPLE INVOLVED WITH THE LOSS CONTROL PROCESS
Director of Risk Management
CEO Cable Company
Sponsor, Safety Committee Executive VP Engineering
Head of Safety committee
System safety coordinator
(Colors- Blue depicts those who favored the implementation of new safety
measures whereas red refers to those who did not encourage the
If we see the diagram and consider only the safety aspect of Gordon’s job, we
see that the company follows a Chain type of communication. Gordon was
supposed to report to Terry, the safety head. However, in the case we read of
Ron being very supportive of Gil’s ideas and Bob being very resistant to take
action. These two individuals are not a part of the safety committee, but they are
making decisions on Gordon’s work.
We do not know the full facts, but this suggests that probably the unity of
command principle is being violated in the company, as more than one person is
evaluating Gordon’s work.
It is also seen that Bob and Gill are resistant towards the implementation of his
suggestions. Terra and Joan, who are important in the safety committee, want
improvements in the field. In addition, the CEO, the most important person in the
company is eager to cut down on the financial losses occurring due to employee
accidents. The ideas proposed by Gordon are congruent with the main aim of the
company at present, yet they meet with considerable resistance. This indicates a
problem with the organizational structure.
There is also a problem with effective communication in the company since Gil
has obviously misunderstood Gordon’s good intentions as a kind of a personal
affront. This point is illustrated in much greater detail in the ‘Lessons learnt’ part
of this analysis.
Solutions, Outcomes, and the consequences of various
If we look at the steps that can be taken in order to solve the current problem, a
number of options come to mind. We assume here that other officials of the
company come to know through the grapevine exactly what transpired between
Gordon and Gil, and work to rectify the conflict. They recognize the fact that even
though the memo was not very well worded, it does certainly represent the sense
of initiative and social responsibility that Gordon has. They decide to let him
continue and re-organize the organization so as to minimize the losses from
Changing the network of communication - Since communication was a major
problem, the communication network could be experimented with. The present
network seems to be a chain network. An all-channel network could be
introduced. The main benefit of such a network is its speed. This is important in
the safety program because the company is losing money and goodwill as a
result of the injuries. Also, the main cause for frustration was the slow
implementation of safety measures. Hence the safety committee needs to act
fast. A potential problem is however the undermining of the hierarchical structure
which the company generally follows.
Written vs. Oral Communication – Let us look back at the memo. Gordon
chose to use written communication, instead of voicing his concerns orally.
Although a written document is usually more coherent, it suffers from the
disadvantages of slow feedback and possible misinterpretation particularly if the
writer is someone not known to the receiver. Workers should realize that in
issues which can be interpreted as putting blame on someone for non-
performance of work, it may be better to talk orally to remove misconceptions.
Another aspect is the need to build trust between people in organizations.
Autonomy in the Workplace -The Company should experiment with providing a
greater amount of freedom and autonomy to its employees. This would certainly
speed up a number of processes. Motivation would be encouraged if the
employees have some degree of control over their work. However, this could
undermine the authority of upper level management in the eyes of the workers. If
an organization has been strongly devoid of worker autonomy, it is important to
avoid a situation where workers suddenly find they have power. This can
seriously impair existing organizational structures. Using some of the
terminology, a shift from a mechanistic structure to one that incorporates certain
elements of both mechanistic and organic structures could be possible.
Process Reengineering – Another possible approach is process reengineering.
The organization’s distinctive competencies need to be identified and core
processes need to be assessed. A horizontal reorganization usually takes place.
It means setting up a new organizational structure and changing the culture
prevalent at the firm. This is a fairly complex procedure. The positives from this
for the company are that it will be able to implement much needed safety
programs as a priority and save expenditure on accidents. New approaches that
encourage autonomy and motivate employees could be introduced. However,
there are dangers too. Reengineering does lead to the loss of middle level
management, and the initial transition is far from easy.
We now consider the possible outcomes if management does not look into the
depths of the episode and is unwilling to bring about any organizational changes
or implement the above mentioned solutions. These outcomes would not be too
desirable. Given Gil’s personality, he would be unwilling to apologize to Gordon.
In fact, if the company does not change itself, then Gil could probably fire Gordon
because he does not fit in with the prevalent organizational culture at the firm.
Elimination of anything that is different from the company’s norms would be the
strategy Gil is likely to follow
As for Gordon, we know that he has suffered from a low morale since the
incident. He still analyses it and feels powerless in the present structure.
Although quitting a job is always a last resort, he might consider that option as
his self respect has been deeply hurt and he is not able to perform at his optimal
level. On the other hand, if he is not fired, he can make an effort to get his point
across to other managers. However, this would require a lot pf persistence and
struggle. Gordon is also unlikely to get support as the organization is non-
Looking at the solutions available, we feel that substantive changes are required
in the structure of the firm and the styles of management. Employees need to be
involved to a greater degree in the firm, and communication processes need re-
evaluation. Noting the complexity of the task it would be best if the company
hires an experienced, independent consultant who suggests some kind of
Lessons learnt from the case
The relation between the lessons and the theories of
This case provides a real life example of how organizational cultures can vary
between different firms. Two important characteristics of organizational culture
are outcome orientation and people orientation. If management takes into
account the effect of the outcomes of its decisions on employees, it is said to be
a People oriented organization. On the other hand Outcome orientation is the
degree to which management focuses on results and productivity rather than the
techniques and methods used to obtain that productivity. Using these two criteria,
we can compare Pacific bell and the Cable Company. Pacific’s immediate
response to security issues signifies it being more people oriented than Gordon’s
new company. The new company was a subsidiary of a large Fortune 500
company, fast paced and modeled on entrepreneurship. The company was
committed to being the best. As such it had a very high outcome orientation.
While joining his job, Gordon never took into account how the difference in
organizational cultures could effect his job satisfaction. The subsequent events
reinforce the importance of evaluating the degree to which ones personality and
culture fits in with that prevalent at the organization. Gordon’s value system was
acquired as a result of ten years of socialization at Pacific Bell. Hence, we realize
that different value systems can be the cause of conflict in the workplace.
This case reiterates the problems that can be posed by barriers to effective
communication. Even though the memo was not intended to be addressed to Gil,
the initial form of communication between the two was the memo. The wordings
of the memo were ‘selectively perceived’ by Gil. As we have learnt in class,
selective perception takes place based on the needs, experience, background
and personal characteristics of the receiver. Gil had a reputation for getting the
job done. This would have made him feel important and egoistic. In addition, he
was at the upper levels of the hierarchy in the organization. His position and
power within the company made him perceive the memo as being a challenge to
his authority and a criticism of his abilities by a technician who had just joined the
In this case, we also see that language can severely impede communication.
There does seem to be a difference in what the memo meant to Gordon and
what it signified for Gil. We also feel that the memo could have been worded in a
better way. Even though well meaning, some sentences in the memo can be
termed as provocative for a man like Gil who is used to authoritarianism. A
phrase like the company ‘needs to show genuine interest’ implies that no one is
serious about the problem. This might be true, but it needs to be a put across in a
more subtle manner. ‘Having a safety program on paper only neither fools nor
benefits anyone’ is a very strong statement that can trigger off the kind of
reaction that Gil demonstrated. The impression this sentence creates is that the
company is a conniving organization that aims to fool people. However, these
errors in wordings certainly do not justify Gil’s reaction.
The topic of ethics is a very subjective one. The question of ethics also comes
into play in a subtle way in this case. After doing his research and offering
solutions, Gordon had two choices. He could sit quietly since he had done his job
by defining problems and suggesting solutions. The second alternative was
making a pro active effort to point out the necessity of immediately implementing
his suggestions. It would have certainly crossed his mind that some people in
upper management might not like a technician to teach them what to do.
However, he decided it was more important for him to pursue the cause of
employee safety even if it met with resistance. Being a socially responsive
person, he took the risk of annoying his superiors. This shows that the question
of how far one is willing to go for what one believes in is a relevant question and
every individual has to find his or her own answer to it.
Lastly we see that Gordon felt he was sidelined in the work processes because
he was a mere technician. This led to a great sense of frustration. It becomes
evident that companies that do not offer employees a participative role fail to
motivate them. The lower the level of employee empowerment in a company, the
higher is the corresponding rate of employee turnover.
The lessons we learn from this case are important as they turn out to be quite
well related with the theories proposed in the field of organizational behavior.
Hence, they serve as guidelines to avoid problems in the workplace.